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Governtment of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 77 - Youth perspectives on bringing government closer to the people

( Created date: 15-Feb-2013 )

24 Dec 2012

Last month I judged the semi-finals of the MTV Debating Competition. I don’t usually accept such invitations, given the time these engagements take, but the topic was whether the 13th Amendment should be abolished, and I thought I should get an idea of what young people were thinking.
To my surprise, both teams expressed the view that the 13th Amendment was a mess because it did not sufficiently empower people at the periphery. Those who did not want to abolish it granted that it needed amendment, to which the Proposition said that there was no point in amending it out of recognition, and that it made more sense to replace it altogether. 
Of course the views expressed could not be taken as representative of the country as a whole, since the debate was in English, and it was two Colombo schools which were in the Semi=Final. But I remembered then the nationwide polls taken at the time I took over the Peace Secretariat in 2007, when the government had come to the realization that it had to deal with the Tigers militarily. Even polls taken by NGOs that had been in favour of the Peace Process initiated by the UNP government – as I had been, until I realized, very soon I should add, that this was not likely to lead to peace but to further confrontation and suffering as the Tigers used that period to build up their military strength – indicated that the vast majority of the people were in favour of getting rid of the Tigers. But they also advocated a peaceful political settlement with greater devolution.
I should add that the need for this is universally agreed, though as I have noted it is expressed as decentralization by many who urge getting rid of Provincial Councils as they now stand. My own view is that, if we go on discussing the matter in terms of Provincial Councils and emotive terms such as devolution and decentralization, we will lose sight of what is generally agreed, that we must develop mechanisms to ensure more power to the people, with greater accountability.
This requires a more imaginative approach to finding ways of resolving the problems people now face. One of the rhetorical questions posed by the opposition was whether the proposition wanted people in Matara to have to come to Colombo to seek justice with regard to land disputes. While the question was not very precise, and in any case was meaningless given that the proposition had wanted decision making to come closer to the people, it showed a fixation on archaic systems that must be adjusted if people are not to continue to feel alienated from the decision making process. 
Forty years ago the United Front government tried to move our judicial system from one of confrontation and retribution to a process where possible of mediation and remedies. Unfortunately Felix Dias Bandaranaike was characteristically tactless about the whole business, and upset too many vested interests too much. The establishment struck back with a vengeance when the UNP came back to power in 1977, and justice was once more removed from the reach of the people at large. So anyone seeking justice in civil matters has to pay through the nose and suffer countless postponements, while the courts are clogged and criminal cases also take ages. Needless to say, the poor who cannot afford lawyers do have summary justice meted out to them, but by and large Sri Lanka is a case of justice being denied because it is delayed.
With regard to justice too then we need to think out of the box. The President does so, when he looks at the matter, but unfortunately our system does not allow for swift follow up of the imaginative suggestions he makes. The same it should be noted is true of his basic formula for bringing decision making closer to the people, which is the strengthening of consultative systems at grass roots level.
Suggestions with regard to a new Local Government Act include entrenching this, but that should be done systematically. Given the deep knowledge of local government that the Marga Institute has built up over the years, it would make sense to have a Committee including its experts and other stakeholders – including those who have been developing participatory budgeting systems for local government authorities in the south of the country – to develop a system that focuses responsibility and ensures accountability. 
Reforms should also explore the powers of local authorities, and enhance them in matters that relate to the day to day lives of the people. The President has drawn attention to this in proposing that local authorities take care of transport for essentials, including school transport and also markets. More responsibilities could be added to the list, with mechanisms for consultation as to needs as well as for transmission of requests and suggestions to higher administrative levels of administration. The bottom line is that the people should have opportunities to ask for what they need, and the right to get a response, even though obviously they cannot expect positive answers to all proposals. 
All this will require better training of administrators at all levels. Last week I attended a workshop at the Indian Administrative Staff College, which is housed in a former palace in Hyderabad. As I have noted before, we should replicate such structures, perhaps through SAARC, so that through sharing of experience our administrators can develop new initiatives.
Certainly the young administrators I have come across in various Divisional Secretariats have intelligence and commitment such as one would expect, given the fierce competition for such positions. But they need greater awareness of modern systems of administration, and in particular developing mechanisms to bring government closer to the people through consultation and accountability. 


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